Sunday, December 27, 2015

We All Need Some Light by Rosie Best (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

So, here we are at the last sermon of 2015. I wonder if you, like me, have been thinking about all the things that have happened in 2015? I know that I came into 2015 very hopeful; 2014 had been a difficult year for a number of reasons and I was very thankful to be saying goodbye to it. Unfortunately, 2015 feels like it’s been one of those years that’s been 2 years worth rolled into one! At the end of January this year, my mother-in-law broke her hip; a week later she broke her other hip… suddenly it seemed that 2015 wasn’t going to be the reprieve we had hoped for. But let’s not make this about me. What’s gone on in the world?

I am a creature of habit, and one of my particular habits is reviewing the news on CNN in the mornings. I like to think that it’s my way of staying abreast of current affairs. 2015 has also been a year full of struggles and depressing news stories. We can look back at the events around the world.  Some of these events that have had an abiding influence on me have included the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris; the death of Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland; the Charleston shooting of Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the 8 others that were with him in a Bible study; and the Syrian refugee crisis, which had us questioning appropriate ways to respond to those in need.

It’s not just the events of the year that have an impact on us. It’s also how we talk about the events. I have to say that I’ve been particularly disheartened by this, this year. People who should know better, have used the opportunities that they have, or the platform that they have, to be divisive and hateful in the way they speak.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Okay, that’s a good reminder.  Over the times I’ve spoken in front of you, I’ve been pretty open with you all about the fact that I am someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety for a lot of my life. I have to be really careful because I can get very easily overwhelmed when I’m reading the news or paying attention to the way things are being spoken about, because I can get very easily caught up in how dark it is around me.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

And it’s also good to be reminded that what we focus on can very quickly become what we notice most. When we focus on the dark things that are going on, when we pay attention to the predominantly negative messages that are being loudly trumpeted from political campaigns, it’s very easy to get depressed and to lose hope. So, it’s very good to be reminded that:

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

It is a really good thing; it can help us keep our perspective when we feel lost or despairing.

So let’s review some of those events. In my personal life, yes, my mother-in-law started the year by breaking both her hips. But on Christmas day, Linda and I were able to eat a wonderful buffet lunch with her, and enjoyed hearing her laughter at the table.  She’s had an incredibly difficult year, but she has survived it with grace and dignity.

And what of those world events?

·      The Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris led to a “Je suis Charlie” movement. People everywhere said, “I’m not going to let these terrorists get the better of us.”

·      Black Lives Matter became further defined and understood this year; people got to know why it was not sufficient to say “all lives matter.” It’s an acknowledgment that for too long, black people have been considered an underclass. We are all human beings who deserve dignity and worth, no exceptions.

·      The Charleston shooting of Rev. Clementa Pinckney led to questions being asked about the confederate flag and its removal from the South Carolina State house.

·      Where are we with the refugee situation? Well, we just celebrated a holiday about a refugee couple, so poor that they couldn’t afford lodging, but in view of the health of the pregnant woman, they got temporary accommodations in a stable. And that should be the story we all think about in reference to refugees.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Where are we going to put our focus as this New Year comes in?

I know for me, I am planning to pay a little more attention to when I get overwhelmed with the negativity around me. I hope to pay less attention to those messages (maybe turn off CNN, or the debate, or Facebook, if necessary) and focus more on hopeful messages. And I need to do this for my own mental health. It’s important that I tune into the things that will help me to be effective and healthy in the New Year; otherwise, I may end up drowning in despair.  

It’s about making healthy choices. I’m not a big one for New Year’s resolutions – they’ve always felt like self-defeating statements… eat less, exercise more (YEAH, RIGHT!). Last year, I made one ‘resolution’ if you can call it that. It was to ‘drink more water.’ It worked, I did manage to drink more water, and I found that it helped me be healthier than I had been in the year before.  I even got to the point where I started to like the taste of water! It’s important that if we are to be healthy, we need to replenish the resources of our body and, as our body is 65% water, that maybe a good place to start.

Christiane Amanpour recently interviewed Sarah Silverman, the Jewish stand-up comedian, for CNN, in regards to her movie “I Smile Back.” Silverman’s character in the movie (which I haven’t seen, so I can’t recommend) is battling with depression and substance abuse issues. In the interview, Silverman says, “Darkness cannot exist in the light, and when you put light on things it changes what they are.” She later went on to use the Mr. Rogers idea that “if it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.” When I mention my struggles with depression, maybe it helps one other person realize that they can get help, too.

You born-and-raised Americans might be more familiar with this quote but I had to look it up. What Mr. Rogers said was, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”

So the darkness in the world doesn’t get to win. I don’t exactly know how that is possible, but I know that the message of John 1 is that “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Different versions of this verse have put it this way: Darkness can never extinguish it, Darkness did not comprehend it, Darkness has never put it out, Darkness has not mastered it, didn’t overtake it, has not overpowered it. Or, in my book: Darkness doesn’t get to win. To me that is very hopeful.

So, what message do we take from this? Well there’s one other verse from this morning’s reading that I want to draw your attention to:

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, FULL OF GRACE AND TRUTH.”

Jesus came (as a vulnerable human being, a baby born in a manger) and was/is full of Grace AND Truth. Please note that the GRACE comes first because we can’t handle the truth without grace.

God is fully cognizant that I, as a frail human being, am prone to getting overwhelmed with the darkness, and comes to me to remind me that the darkness doesn’t win. Francis of Assisi said, “All of the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”

These are words that give us hope.

Finally, I don’t know whether you’ve ever noticed this, but I am English by birth. One of the English traditions is the Queen’s Speech, which happens every year on Christmas Day at 3pm. This year, the Queen (or mummy as I like to call her) used the idea of ‘moments of darkness’ in her speech – quoting the John 1 passage that we read today. Pointing to the hope that is an essential part of this gospel message.

So how do we ensure that we don’t let the darkness overwhelm us? We commit to love one another – an activity which brings light. And, as Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “It is better to light a candle that to curse the darkness.”

Sometimes we need to remind one another about the light that is within us and express hope to one another through that reminder.

We don’t have to try to be bigger than we are; we just have to stand with our little light. And light attracts other light, and pretty soon we have a community of light.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

RUNNING TO THE MANGER by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

Running. Sometimes we run for pleasure or for exercise. But sometimes we run to get away from something… we are afraid of something. We run because we are frightened and we need to get away. We run for our lives. We also run to get to something. We run because we are in a hurry. We are excited, or we want to beat everyone else to that place. Perhaps it is a contest and we want to win the prize by being the first one there. Sometimes we want to buy something and the doors have just opened on Black Friday. We want to get the best deal and don’t want to miss out. I think the best time to run is when you are at the airport because you are meeting a loved one that you have not seen in a long time. You run to meet them and you give them a big hug. 

In the Christmas story (for those following from afar we used Luke 2:1-20 from The Message), the shepherds run to the manger to go see the baby Jesus. They are sort of running to get a prize. They want to get there before anyone else. But most of all, they are going to meet someone who will love them like no other. They are meeting the source of love in the world, God in the flesh. They run like the wind to the manger because they want to see this Christ child. 

But let’s back up a little bit and remember this familiar story.  Mary and Joseph have traveled to Bethlehem, from their home in Nazareth, because there is a census. Bethlehem is very crowded because of all the out of town visitors who are part of the descendants of David. There is no room anywhere for them to stay, so they end up in a stable with the animals. Of course, the time comes for Mary to give birth and she gives birth to Jesus. They put him in a manger, which is like a feeding trough for the cows. They swaddle him in a cloth and lay him there on a bed of hay. 

At that time, angels come into the story. We’ve been having lots of angel visitations during this season of Advent, leading up to Christmas. This time, the angels come to visit some shepherds in a field near Bethlehem. Now what you need to know is that shepherds they were at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to the social classes in that day. They were dirty, and smelly because they worked out in the fields with the sheep and rarely got home to take a bath. No one thought very highly of shepherds. These were not the cute little boys in bathrobes that you see in your average Church Christmas pageant. 

Nonetheless, a host of angels, which means a whole big bunch of them, appears to the shepherds and gave them a message: 

 First one says: “Don’t be afraid. I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David’s town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. This is what you’re to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger.”
And then the whole host sings:
“Glory to God in the heavenly heights,
Peace to all men and women on earth who please God.”

The shepherds look at one another, talk it over for a minute, and say, “Let’s go over to Bethlehem and see what’s going on.” And so they went running to find the manger. They ran because this was important; this was no ordinary night. Angels had appeared to them, promising a Savior. They had no time to waste.

And so they found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying there in a manger just as the scripture says “Seeing was believing. They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child. All who heard the shepherds were impressed.”

You see, when you see something that changes your life, you have to tell others. When the shepherds saw Jesus, they saw the fullness of God’s love born in the flesh. They saw the one who would save the people, the Messiah. They saw one who would bring light to the darkness, and hope to their despair. They saw God in the flesh. They knew they were in the presence of God. Even though Jesus was just a tiny baby, perhaps a day old. Even then, Jesus had a presence and a power. 

So those shepherds couldn’t have keep quiet. They told anyone who would listen. “The Messiah has been born, our Savior.” Remember that the people of Israel were living under the oppression of the Roman Empire. Life was bleak for them. It was welcome news that someone was coming who would rise up and be a new king for them. Of course they had no idea what kind of king he would be. He would be a humble king, a servant king, like none they had ever known. 

And so the news spread like wildfire. Something has happened in Bethlehem. A baby has been born, a baby that will turn our world upside down, a baby that will change our lives forever. I’m sure there were other visitors that aren’t recorded in scripture. Jesus drew people to him, even as an infant. People ran to see him in the manger, because they were longing for the new life he came to bring. 

So the story goes, the shepherds “returned and let loose, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen. It turned out the way they’d been told!” At the same time “Mary kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself.” You see Mary was more reflective and quiet; she was simply filled with awe and wonder at what God was doing through her. 

So we have the introduction of Jesus into the world. He was born, and people came running to the manger. I wonder, what would it take for us to go running to the manger tonight? I wonder how we could put ourselves in the sandals of the shepherds and be filled with the same excitement and wonder that they felt on that first Christmas night. Because you see, Jesus was born for us too. He is born anew for us on this Christmas night. 

All we have to do is come to this manger and receive the gift of Jesus. The gift of Jesus to us in unconditional love. That’s it. And that is so much for us to comprehend. 

God loves you fully and without question. You don’t have to earn God’s love. You don’t have to prove yourself to God. You don’t have to check things off a list, achieve a bunch of goals, be the perfect wife or husband, mother or father. You just simply get to be, and God loves you. Just rest in that promise for a moment. God loves YOU. The creator of the heavens and the earth, LOVES YOU. God knows every hair on your head, every mistake you have made. And God forgives you, without question. You are forgiven and you are blessed. 

This is the good news we have to share tonight. Just like the shepherds ran out to tell their friends, we have this message to share with everyone we meet. Christmas is about God being born into the world in Jesus. And Jesus comes to love us fully. So we don’t need to fight with one another. We can give each other a break when we are imperfect, OK? We can give one another a second chance. Jesus came to show us how to forgive and how to love. We can follow him and we can be like him. Really, we can do it. 

So, on this Christmas Eve, let’s join the shepherds at the manger and receive the only Christmas gift – the gift of God’s love in Jesus. You are loved. You are precious to God. You are a blessing. Amen.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

God’s Servants: John the Baptist by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

My husband Kurt has worked on several political campaigns. And we have had the opportunity to meet some folks who have worked on some congressional and presidential campaigns. One of the things that happens before the candidate comes to town, is an advance team comes to get things ready.

The advance team comes in to check out the facility, to check on security. They also meet people and decide who are the people that the candidate should talk to… some will be people with power in the city… the movers and the shakers.  Others will be everyday people because a good candidate wants to meet people from every facet of the community. 

You see, the candidate has limited time and so their time must be well spent on the most strategic conversations. People are chosen to ride in the limousine with the candidate from event to event so that not a moment of time is wasted. Every conversation is crucial and can make a difference to the end goal. So, the preparations are essential. Today’s scripture is about Jesus’ advance team, a one man team, John the Baptist. Our scripture starts with his birth. But let’s back up just a little bit further. 

Do you remember a couple of weeks ago we talked about Zachariah and Elizabeth? They were well along in years, but an angel came to the priest Zachariah while he was on duty in the temple in Jerusalem and told him, “Your wife is going to have a baby.” Zachariah laughed at such an idea, as he and his wife were quite old, and because he laughed the angel struck him mute. 

Today, we come to the time when that baby is born (Luke 1:57-80 from The Message for those following along from afar). The parents take the baby to the temple on the 8th day to have him circumcised, and all the friends are assuming the baby will be called Zachariah, after his father. But Elizabeth says, “No, he shall be called John.” Zachariah confirms this by writing on a tablet and when he does this, his voice comes back. He is showing his faithfulness to God and so his voice is restored. 

Zachariah is filled with the sense of wonder and awe and blessing, and he sings this song about his son. This is the heart of our reading for today. First Zachariah reminds the people that God brought them out of slavery in Egypt. God has saved them before. Zachariah reminds them:

God promised long ago
    through the preaching of the holy prophets:
Deliverance from our enemies
    and every hateful hand.

This is important because now the people are living under the oppression of Roman occupation. They are not free. But they want to be free. There is no peace in their land. But they want peace. Their people are living in poverty. They want to live, having enough food to eat, and everyone having a home.
Zachariah says that his son is leading the way. He prophesies:
And you, my child, “Prophet of the Highest,”
    will go ahead of the Master to prepare his ways,

This means that John will go ahead of Jesus and prepare the way. John will be Jesus’ advance team. He will get the people ready to hear what Jesus has to say. 

Zachariah goes on to say that John will:

Present the offer of salvation to his people,
    the forgiveness of their sins.
This is huge. John will forgive sins. Up to this point, only the priests could forgive sins. Now John is going to take it upon himself to offer God’s forgiveness. And he is going to offer salvation. These people need to be saved from their sin, and John is going to be the one who stands ready to offer them salvation. What a gift! 

          Zachariah continues:

Through the heartfelt mercies of our God,
    God’s Sunrise will break in upon us,
Shining on those in the darkness,
    those sitting in the shadow of death,

John is going to bring light to those sitting in darkness. He is going to bring the light of God to those who have no light and have no hope. 

Finally Zachariah says John:

Then showing us the way, one foot at a time,
    down the path of peace.

John will show people the way of peace. They are living in a land of oppression. They are slaves to the Romans. But John will show them peace in their land. He will point them to the one who is the Prince of Peace, Jesus. 

John prepares the way. He is the advance man. Friends, what are we doing to get ready? What are we doing to prepare our hearts and minds to get ready to receive Jesus once again? Oh sure, we have been decorating our houses, and shopping for Christmas gifts and food for Christmas dinner. Those are our material preparations. But how have we been preparing our hearts and minds? 

We don’t live under foreign oppression, but we do live under the threat of terrorism. We live in cities where there is gun violence. What are we doing to be peacemakers in our day? 

I have a few ideas on what we can do. We can stop hating all Muslims just because some terrorists are Muslim extremists. The Muslim religion at its core does not promote terrorism. The vast majority of Muslims living in this country are law abiding citizens who are just as frightened of the terrorists as the rest of us are. 

As followers of Jesus and as peace makers, we must stand up to those who would oppress Muslims. The idea that we would stop immigration of all Muslims simply because they are Muslim is ludicrous. This country was founded on the freedom of religion. And by the way, for the record, Christians and Muslims do worship the same God who is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They don’t follow Jesus, but our God is the same God. If we want to be peace makers then we need to make peace with our Muslim brothers and sisters. We need to get to know them, frequent their businesses and treat them with respect. This is how we act as peace-makers and prepare to receive Jesus. 

How else can we be peace-makers? By not living in fear between white and black Americans. We still have not overcome the ramifications of the sin of slavery. We still have not left the sin of segregation behind us. Black children are segregated into inner city schools that are inferior to suburban schools. A white woman walks down the street and when she sees a young black man walking toward her she either holds her purse a little tighter to her body, or worse yet, crosses the street to avoid him. We all know this happens. I have gotten out of my car in the Old West End late at night, and been a bit fearful of the people around me. I will confess that sometimes I am more fearful of persons of color than white people in my neighborhood. I’m ashamed of that. As a follower of Jesus, I want to treat everyone the same. John came to show us the way “one foot at a time, down the path of peace.” That’s what it means to get ready for Jesus, to prepare the way for a Savior. We become people of peace.

But let’s take it a little closer to home. Let’s look at our personal relationships. With whom do you not live in peace in terms of your daily relationships? Is it a co-worker, a friend who is no longer a friend, a family member with whom you no longer speak? Maybe you have a sense that you are not living in peace because you have great envy of another person’s life and that envy is keeping you from living in peace with her. Perhaps someone has wronged you and you have been unable to forgive him. 

As Christ-followers, we are people of peace. It does us no good to hold a grudge, or to carry around envy, or to withhold forgiveness from another person. These things just keep negativity in our hearts. Jesus calls us to make peace. That can take many forms. You might go to the person and have a conversation. You might write a letter or an e mail. Or you might just make peace in your heart. Sometimes the person we are not at peace with has no idea, but the negativity is eating away, inside of us like a poison. We need to make peace, because we follow the Prince of Peace.

          Christmas is just a few short days away. John was born to prepare the people for Jesus. He came to show us the way “one foot at a time, down the path of peace.” So as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus once again, let us prepare our hearts. Let us consider how we can be peace-makers. And let us make our peace in the world.